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‘Aida’ at the Lyric Opera: Verdi’s tragedy hits the pitches but misses some dramatic notes

Submitted by on Jan 28, 2012 – 8:00 pm

Review: “Aida” by Giuseppe Verdi, at the Lyric Opera of Chicago through March 25. ***

By Lawrence B. Johnson

The Lyric Opera’s current production of Verdi’s “Aida” strikes me as more intriguing than interesting. The only distinct impression it left with me was the sense that it soon would slip from memory, its best features blotted out by a general aura of routine.

Call it blameless and forgettable. But therein lies the fascination, for the re-creation of so great a work as “Aida” can’t be both indifferent and faultless. The Lyric’s “Aida” has a good deal going for it musically, starting with Renato Palumbo’s acutely gauged conducting and extending to the solid singing of soprano Sondra Radvanovsky as the slave Aida, tenor Marcello Giordani as the hero Radames and mezzo-soprano Jill Grove as Princess Amneris, Aida’s master and her rival in love.  What’s wrong perhaps comes down to chemistry and choices. The whole doesn’t feel equal to the sum of the parts.

This Nicholas Joel production, as restaged by Matthew Lata, seldom rises to a fine pitch as theater. Mostly, the desultory affair comes across as a costumed, decorated walk-through. It is typified by the Princess Amneris’ shuttling about as if looking for a place to land in the Act I scene of Radames’ proclamation as commander of the Egyptian forces. It’s hard to focus on the dramatic moment – or the singing, for that matter – with one of the principals conspicuously adrift.

The triumphal scene of Radames’ return presents a veritable tapestry of problems when one expects a tapestry of grandeur. Here, one of the production’s great strengths, its ample and splendid ballet sequences, works against it. Almost from the onset of the triumphal march, the dancers occupy the front of the stage, relegating the parade of soldiers, prisoners and plundered loot to an out-of-focus incident playing itself out upstage.

Not that we should be looking for an elephant or a camel, but one might reasonably suggest that the Triumphal March should be, first and foremost, a parade. It’s like finding a good spot for the Thanksgiving Day spectacle only to have the marching bands and floats turn at the next corner. And it’s doubly unfortunate because by peering around and through the dancers one can see that the victorious returning army is quite handsomely caparisoned. At least we’re indulged by on-stage trumpeters to sound Verdi’s gleaming fanfares.

Directorial choices become more cogent as the opera presses toward its tragic denouement. The arrival of the priests who will judge Radames on charges of treason has an imposing aspect of ceremony, as the formally garbed men descend from sight into a subterranean chamber to interrogate the commander. And the image of doomed Radames, joined by his devoted Aida in a miniature pyramidal tomb, is arresting in its claustrophobic finality.

Quite fine as well is the singing of Giordani and Radvanovsky as their voices, light and life all trace the same ultimate diminuendo. It is the one moment when the two characters really seem like lovers rather than role-players. Chemistry is notably missing on every side: the spark between Radames and Aida, the edge between him and the pharaoh’s daughter Amneris, even between Aida and her father, the captured Ethiopian King Amonasro (potently voiced by Gordon Hawkins).

Yet Giordani and Radvanovsky have their electric moments apart– he in a sweetly soaring “Celeste Aida” and she in a fully blossoming “O patria mia” that is surely the vocal highlight of the night. Further, Grove and Radvanovsky strike sparks in their brilliantly sung duet as Amneris traps her slave-rival into revealing her love for Radames.

In March, the principals will all change for the production’s last six performances. Hui He takes over the title role, with Marco Berti as Radames, Anna Smirnova as Amneris and Quinn Kelsey as Amonasro.

Among attractive constants will be the Lyric Opera Chorus, which sings gloriously, the Lyric Opera Orchestra’s colorful contribution, the exquisite dancing of the women in the temple scene and Pet Halmen’s imaginative and evocative sets. But Halmen also designed the costumes, which perhaps contribute to the pervasive emotional disconnect. Aida seems all too well attired while we never see Radames in military weeds of real splendor. Such is the curiosity of this production, though its March may yet be grand.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: Sondra Radvanovsky, center, as Aida with Jill Grove, right, as Amneris. Upper right: An embrace by the ill-starred lovers Aida and Radames, played by Marcello Giordani. Above right: Dancers in the temple provide a visual highlight. Below: A spectacle greets Radames’ triumphal return from war. (Photos by Dan Rest)

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